CHICAGO — Earlier this month, a school nurse sent Kim Zlatin’s 9-year-old daughter home after she complained that her stomach, head and body ached.
Zlatin, 42, of Northbrook, suspected greasy food from the night before was to blame, but her daughter needed to test negative for COVID-19 before she could return to class.
Her pediatric practice didn’t do the tests, so she called half a dozen other places to find the soonest appointment available. Ultimately, Zlatin and her daughter headed to Arlington International Racecourse, a state-run site that offers tests without appointments. They waited in their car for two hours.
It took another four days to get the negative result.
All told, her daughter missed all her in-person instruction that week — despite feeling better almost immediately after Zlatin picked her up from school.
“It was just frustrating,” said Zlatin, noting that the first time her daughter needed a COVID-19 test in September, it only took a couple of days to get a test and results.
For months, many Illinois parents have struggled to get the COVID-19 tests schools and day cares may require before a child can return after illness. They often face confusing obstacles and requirements: Many pediatricians won’t test kids for COVID-19, some testing sites have age restrictions and some day cares and schools only accept certain kinds of tests.
The situation has gotten worse amid the current COVID-19 surge in Illinois, which in many cases has lengthened wait times for testing. At a time when many parents are working from home or worried about keeping their jobs, the challenges surrounding testing adds another level of stress.
“It really puts parents in a tricky position,” said Dr. Allison Bartlett, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “It is absolutely a challenge.”
‘Demand has skyrocketed’
Many pediatricians don’t offer COVID-19 tests because of a lack of personal protective equipment, they don’t have relationships with labs that run the tests, or they want to keep the virus out of their offices.
“I think most of the pediatrician offices don’t feel that comfortable with the infection control processes ... and prefer to send them to hospital,” said Dr. Michael Handler, chief medical officer of the northwest region for Amita Health.
Pediatricians often order tests for children at sites such as those run by Lurie Children’s Hospital, University of Chicago Medicine and Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates. But those sites, along with most others, have seen more people seeking testing in recent weeks as the number of cases has ballooned, which can mean longer wait times.
“The demand has skyrocketed,” Handler said. “We know that the numbers are huge, and unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard to keep up with that demand.”
Amy Rizman, 42, of Glenview, recently had to get a COVID-19 test for her 5-year-old daughter after she finished a course of antibiotics for strep throat but still felt ill.
Her pediatrician gave her an order to be tested by Lurie. She would have preferred Lurie’s Northbrook location, but she would have had to wait days for an appointment — keeping her daughter and 7-year-old son out of school while she waited.
She was told she might be able to get a test at a Northwestern Medicine site in Glenview, so she and her kids waited there in her car for 45 minutes only to be told that the Lurie order wasn’t in their system.
The next day, she drove to Lurie’s Lincoln Park location, where her daughter was tested while sitting in her car seat. “She cried for a second, but they were really good,” Rizman said.
Rizman received a negative result the next morning on the hospital’s electronic portal, took a screenshot of it, and emailed it to her daughter’s school.
Rizman considers herself lucky that Lurie was able to test her daughter so quickly, even if it meant having to drive farther from home.
“It’s the right thing, but it’s a tough scenario for everyone,” Rizman said.
‘A bit frustrating’
Some parents are taking their kids to clinics that charge for testing in hopes of getting them back to school faster.
Federal law generally requires health insurance companies to cover COVID-19 tests at no cost to patients, but some people are being charged by providers because of certain exemptions and nuances in the law. Some of those providers are asking patients to submit receipts to their insurance companies themselves for reimbursement.
State-run testing sites are offering free testing to everyone, without doctors’ orders, regardless of symptoms, though wait times can run as long as three hours. Chicago-run sites also offer testing to everyone, at no cost to patients.
Some other sites have age restrictions. CVS Health, for example, only tests children 10 and older. Walgreens recently lowered its COVID-19 testing age to 3.
At both Walgreens and CVS, parents and/or children have to administer the tests themselves, with guidance from pharmacy workers. They both use tests that involve sticking a swab about an inch up the nose, unlike some others that reach back farther. Parents must fill out online questionnaires to get appointments, and may have to wait depending on demand.
Further complicating matters, some schools and day cares only accept results of PCR tests, not rapid antigen tests, because PCR tests are considered more accurate.
The Cary Grove KinderCare day care, for example, accepts both antigen and PCR results when a child is experiencing symptoms, but will only accept a PCR result if the child has been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, said Rebecca Bulava, the center’s director.
In line with state health guidance, the center requires any child showing symptoms to stay home for at least 10 days, only returning once those symptoms disappear. Or, the child can come back if he or she gets a doctor’s note saying a COVID-19 test wasn’t necessary because the child had a different diagnosis. Or, if the child tests negative for COVID-19, he or she may come back as long as the symptoms have been gone for at least 48 hours, Bulava said.
Facebook and word-of-mouth
Once results come back, it can be a challenge to share those with a school or day care.
Many health systems have online portals where results are posted. Parents can print those results or email them to schools. Other sites, however, may first give results through a phone call.
Zlatin, whose 9-year-old daughter was tested at the Arlington Heights racecourse, knew from reading about other parents' experiences on Facebook that getting results to her school might be an issue.
“I told the whole family, ‘If you hear the phone ring, answer it,’” Zlatin said. When she got the call, she raced to grab an iPad to record the conversation and then emailed the recording to her daughter’s school nurse.
She didn’t receive a physical letter with the negative result until eight days after the phone call.
Rizman said it’s frustrating having to rely on word-of-mouth and social media for information about where and how to get children tested.
“It’s tricky to navigate, and I think I understand the workings more than most people,” she said, noting that she’s a physician assistant.
Many parents consider it part of the trade-off for the ability to keep their kids in school and day care.
Emily Loesche’s 18-month-old son has already had four negative COVID-19 tests: two that had to be done before undergoing a procedure, one when he was congested, and another when she worried he might have been exposed to the illness.
Two of the tests were conducted at a Lurie site, and two were done at her pediatrician’s office. Each time went smoothly. At Lurie, he was tested while still strapped into his car seat, and at his doctor’s office, he sat on his mom’s lap.
Still, she said, the whole experience has been difficult, from having to decide when and how to get him tested to worrying he might develop more symptoms and have to stay home from day care. She and her husband both work from home, in their two-bedroom condo in Logan Square.
“We barely have room for the two of us to be here working, much less watch a child who is very mobile,” Loesche said. “We have to have some sort of child care solution. Day care is our only option, and we really like our day care a lot. But it’s really stressful.”